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A Ruthless Proposition(10)

By:Natasha Anders


“I like looking at you,” he repeated. “You’re interesting.”

Well, at least he hadn’t lied and called her pretty. She knew she had a weird face. For one thing, her lips were too big in a too-narrow face. Her schoolmates had nastily called her “Juicy Lips” throughout primary school, and in high school the boys had started making all kinds of offensive suggestions about the things she should be doing with those “juicy lips.” Then there was her crooked nose, broken when she’d fallen during a dance rehearsal years ago. It wasn’t horrendous, and after the surgery to fix the damage had failed, Cleo resigned herself to accepting her slightly off-center nose. And finally there were her ridiculously big green eyes, which had people likening her to a baby doll for most of her life. Cleo hated her bug eyes; she thought they made her look continually surprised.

Her ridiculous face, combined with the petite body, often led people to underestimate her. That had been an asset while she was pursuing her dance career; she had wanted to be underestimated before “wowing” her competitors and choreographers with her talent. Choreographers and directors loved that unexpected quality about her, had raved about her “freshness” and her “quirkiness.” But now, in the real world, being underestimated led to fewer opportunities and greater frustrations.

“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Dante’s voice intruded upon her troubling thoughts, and she focused her attention back on him.

“I was thinking . . .” She cleared her throat before affecting a cocky grin and reaching for her dessert. “I was thinking you still haven’t told me what you did after dinner tonight. Did you go to one of those onsen places?” She was referring to the public hot spas that were so popular in Japan. “Did you have to get naked with Mr. Tanaka and Mr. Watanabe?”

He winced at the question.

“Dios, no.”

“Then it really can’t be that bad, can it?” She enjoyed needling him; his embarrassment made him seem a little more approachable. “Anything my imagination dredges up will probably be a lot worse than reality.”

“We went to karaoke,” he said, finally relenting, and Cleo choked on her first bite of cheesecake.

“You’re being overly dramatic,” he scoffed as she waved her hand in front of her face to cool her skin after her coughing fit.

“Karaoke?” she finally managed on a wheeze, and he nodded. “Seriously?”

“Yes. Can I have some of that cheesecake?” he asked casually.

“No,” she replied equally casually, deliberately sticking another forkful in her mouth and chewing slowly before asking her next question. “Did you actually sing?”

“Sí.” His eyes dropped to the remaining cheesecake on her plate. “Just a bite?”

“No,” she said as she took another teasing forkful. “What did you sing?”

“A bit of Queen, some Rolling Stones, a little Nirvana, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blondie . . .” he recited. “You don’t seriously mean to eat that entire piece of cake, do you?”

“I do,” she affirmed. “Blondie? Seriously?”

“And Cyndi Lauper.” He grimaced. “Ms. Inokawa really likes their songs but can’t sing them because the English is a bit too fast-paced for her.”

“But they’re so high-pitched.” She laughed.

“I know. Can we stop talking about this now? And I warn you, this remains between us. Now give me some of that cake.”

“No, it’s my cake. Get your own dessert!”


“Oh my God, what are you doing?” she asked seconds later when he knelt in front of her chair and ran his hands from her knees to her thighs, parting her robe as he did so. She hurriedly put her cake aside as she stared down at him in shock.

“Getting my dessert,” he mumbled, moving his hands beneath her butt and dragging her to the edge of the chair until he had her spread wide open in front of him. The corners of his lips quirked upward before he hummed in contentment, bent his head, and feasted.

Cleo, her own dessert forgotten, stared down at the top of his dark head in disbelief until his very talented tongue started to work its magic on her. She arched back in the chair and entangled her fingers in his hair as her eyes drifted shut.

“Oh. My God . . .”


The rest of their time in Tokyo sped by. Dante didn’t micromanage Cleo as much as before, solely because he didn’t have the time to oversee her every little move. She did her work efficiently and gave him no cause for complaint.

Their nights were equally busy. They never spoke about it, never gave what was happening between them a name, but they spent every night together having mind-blowing sex. And when it was over, Cleo always retreated to her room, and Dante never made any attempt to call her back. And if she ever had any doubts as to the nature of their “relationship,” his indifference and distance during the day when he was focused on work certainly made things clear. He never, by word or by deed, let on that theirs was anything more than a working relationship. Yet he had a chocolate-glazed doughnut waiting for her at whatever conference room they happened to find themselves in on any given day, and he always ensured that her plate was full at lunchtime and that the menu would be palatable for her. When they headed back to the hotel in the evenings, Daisuke always took a different route so she got to see a bit of the city, which she suspected was Dante’s doing as well. It was all so sweet, Cleo didn’t know how to respond to it.

By their last day, the zoning problem had been completely ironed out, and everybody was in a celebratory mood. They would break ground on the new hotel in less than a month.

“Tonight, we will have an enkai to celebrate this wonderful occasion,” Ms. Inokawa stated happily. “This is a very formal Japanese event, so there will be many speeches, but after that we will all enjoy drinking together and have many after-parties.”

Her pretty eyes slid to Dante in clear invitation, and Cleo pretended not to see the smile he slanted the woman in return. Of course she wasn’t jealous. Dante Damaso meant nothing to her. Just a bit of fun. A casual fling.

So that evening as they were preparing to leave the hotel, Cleo suggested she stay behind. After all, she told herself magnanimously, he might feel a bit awkward flirting with Ms. Inokawa while Cleo was hanging about.

“You’re not staying behind. You’ve read enough of those etiquette books to know that it’s damned bad manners,” he snapped. He’d been in a pretty foul mood most of the day, despite the news that his new hotel had gotten the green light.

Cleo sighed and checked her appearance in the mirror one final time. She was wearing yet another variation of the same boring skirt, jacket, and blouse combo that she had rocked the entire week. She truly hated her work wardrobe; it wasn’t at all to her taste. She was more at home in torn jeans and T-shirts, or slip dresses with long bohemian skirts, than in these horrendous suits that made her feel like a trussed-up pigeon. She didn’t know who she was when she wore these clothes.

Because this was a work-related enkai, everyone would be dressed in business suits. Dante looked his usual dashing self in a three-piece, pin-striped, navy-blue, bespoke Desmond Merrion suit with a white shirt, red tie, and Tanino Crisci Lilian shoes, all of which she knew were ridiculously expensive because she had seen his personal bills. The man looked gorgeous and smelled luxurious. Cleo, on the other hand, just felt frumpy in her department-store knockoff gray pencil skirt, matching blazer, and pink cotton blouse. Ugh, and the sensible black pumps she was wearing were completely hideous too.

“Let’s go.” Dante ushered her out of the suite and to the elevator, and Cleo tried to drum up some enthusiasm for the event. At least she would get to see someplace other than a boring conference room in a bleak building.

“I hope the food’s good,” she said once they were in the elevator. He stood beside her, close enough for her to feel his body heat without physically touching him. His hands were clasped in front of him, and his feet were braced shoulder-width apart. He looked like a soldier ready for battle.

“Hmm,” he merely grunted, and she raised her eyebrows. So it was going to be like that, was it?

Right, then.

She didn’t say another word until they were seated in the car. Daisuke greeted them enthusiastically, like he hadn’t seen them just hours before, and Cleo smiled warmly at him before continuing the fascinating conversation about Japanese pop culture that they’d been having earlier. He was entertaining and genuinely funny, and it wasn’t long before Cleo was laughing at some of his anecdotes.

“My girlfriend loves purikura, and she has many hundreds of tiny pictures of herself and her friends.” He told Cleo about something called “print club”—specialized photo booths found in most malls—that took tiny airbrushed pictures, which could be Photoshopped before being printed.

“Do you have any pictures, Dai?” Cleo asked curiously.

“I only go to purikura with Miki,” he explained. Miki was his girlfriend. He flipped down the sun visor and retrieved the pictures he had stashed behind the mirror. He handed them back to her, and Cleo exclaimed in delight over the colorful, brightly decorated little photographs of Daisuke and a pretty girl. She turned toward Dante to share the images with him, but he was staring out the window, ignoring them, his jaw tightly clenched as he glared at the passing scenery. Her smile slipped a little as she stared at the back of his head, wondering what was going on with him.